'Strait-Jacket' & 'Berserk!' [Double Feature]
(Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, George Kennedy, Ty Hardin, et al / Blu-ray / NR / (1988) 2018 / Mill Creek Entertainment)
Overview: The original scream queen delivers in two classic campy thrillers from the '60s, 'STRAIT-JACKET' and 'BERSERK!'.
Blu-ray Verdict: In 'Strait-Jacket' (1964), movie queen Joan Crawford (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) gives a terrific performance. A chiller from pioneer horror movie producer William Castle, Lucy Harbin (Crawford) goes berserk when she finds her husband in bed with another woman.
So, Lucy axes the couple to death and spends twenty years in a mental institution for murder! After she is released, she moves in with family and hopes her nightmare is over ... but a string of ax murders suddenly start occurring in the neighborhood and police think Lucy has reverted to her old ways.
The tagline, which states that the film 'vividly depicts axe murders' isn't exactly true, and the film is not very shocking in today's day and age. However, this would obviously have been different back in 1964, and despite no real money shots, Castle gives his film a great macabre atmosphere; and this adequately provides the horror on its own.
Crawford gets a great support cast to work with, and again the film transcends its B-movie heritage as they're all extremely good. Diane Baker, Leif Erickson and my personal favorite, George Kennedy, all manage to give stand-out performances behind the leading lady.
The film opens up with a great little sequence which shows why the lead character was sent to the asylum, and although the plot takes a downturn after that, Castle manages to keep things interesting all the way down to the explosive ending.
Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce) now stars as Monica Rivers, the owner of a traveling circus plagued by a series of mysterious deaths, in 'Berserk!' (1967).
When a high-wire performer becomes the first victim, he is replaced by an even more daring aerialist who begins a romance with Monica. Their relationship draws envy from her business manager who is the brutal killer's next victim.
As the police begin to investigate, bigger audiences flock to the show. The mystery swirls as a cast of suspects and motives rage with jealousy and revenge.
The makings for a good thriller are here: a series of bizarre murders plagues a traveling circus as it journeys across England. Unfortunately, the film's pacing is slow and unimaginative.
Scenes tend to run long and they've not been shaped to create any real suspense or urgency. Occasionally the film simply stops for footage of circus acts which, though mildly interesting, do little to advance the plot.
Even the revelation of the killer's identity proves disappointing since this revelation doesn't seem to grow out of past events but has simply been "tacked on."
Despite these faults, there's a curiously likable quality to 'Berserk!', and Joan Crawford's damn-the-torpedoes performance as the circus owner lends it a certain "campy" charm. Especially amusing are her romantic scenes with Ty Hardin who was about 26 years her junior at the time of the filming.
Ty may have been a bit past his "beefcake" prime - which he reached in his 'Chapman Report' appearance some five years earlier, to my mind - but he still looks good here with his shirt off; even though there's a curious reluctance to show his navel!
Oh, and fans of the brilliant 'Mommie Dearest' will find special appreciation of the scene in which Joan has to remove her daughter from boarding school. It's as if the authors of the bio-pic were more inspired by this fictional scene when scripting their film than whatever happened in real life!
Rounding out the cast are Michael Gough, Diana Dors, and Judy Geeson. Robert Hardy plays the policeman sent to investigate the murders, but his part proves to be superfluous. These are both Full Screen Presentations (1.33:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs.